I sat down for a discussion with Ken Laberteaux, senior principal scientist at Toyota Research Institute of North America, who is looking at the history of transportation in order to help Toyota understand the future of user experience.

Ken Laberteaux
Ken Laberteaux
Senior Principal Scientist
at Toyota Research Institute

Somewhere in the midst of the interview, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from the book Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk:

There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns... If you watch [closely], history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't [yet] recognized.

And, therein, maybe Palahniuk is right: maybe we should study the past users’ behaviors if we want to define the future. This certainly seemed so by the end of my interview.

From a 30,000-foot level, what does Toyota have you working on?

I actually spend very little time at work thinking about Toyota cars. Instead, I’m tasked to understand what makes American transportation the way it is: why do people live where they live, why do they drive where they drive, and why do they drive what they drive? What are the important forces — cultural, technical, economic — that shape these decisions? These answers can inform how you change your designs toward what people do like and away from what they don’t like about their cars… the inconvenience, the cost, the traffic, the environmental impact, etc. My job is to make sense of those enduring needs in order to shape a more sustainable society.

By understanding those sometimes hidden wants, we have a better user experience.

Why have a scientist studying this? Why not simply ask customers what they want?

Toyota understands that in order to meet our goals as a company, we have to understand how our products fit into the larger picture. How do our products impact decisions that are made? How are things being regulated? And how, in the end, are they are used? What can we do to make an impact?

Recently, I have become much more of a big data analyst. I try to find meaning and context as I look at lots of large data sets. Some of those data are related to transportation, like the trips people take, which travel mode (and often, which car) they chose, and how they drive. But I also look at non-transportation data, like when are people getting married, when are they having children and how do housing and travel needs evolve over a lifetime? I was trained as an engineer, so I bring that analytical thinking towards the exercise. Without delving deep into that data, you cannot truly understand the customers’ needs.

Can you share an example of your findings?

We are looking at how best to deploy some of the new, environmental powertrain technologies across our society. Most of our policies, like Zero Emission Vehicles or ZEV (a regulation in several US states) and CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, a U.S. national regulation) are really trying to increase the number of these green cars sold or raise the average fuel economy across all car companies’ fleets. But there has not been a lot of research done to understand specifically how we might tweak those regulations or sales strategies to best match the right technology to the customer who would benefit the most.

As a specific example, the U.S. government currently provides a large tax break to customers who buy plug-in electric vehicles. If we want to get the biggest societal return on that incentive, more can been done to understand how the customers plan to use those vehicles. We know that plug-in and hybrid electric vehicles, which improve the fuel efficiency in city driving more than highway driving, are being purchased mostly by suburban households. In some cases, moving a hybrid from highway driver to a city driver will save twice the CO2 per mile. In the US, only about a quarter of hybrids and plug-in cars are registered to city addresses. So, around three-quarters of all people who receive tax credits are, yes, certainly improving their fuel efficiency, but not as much as if we had put those hybrid vehicles in the hands of urban drivers. Ideally, we would try to flip those buying patterns.

But you cannot provide tax breaks or product regulations by zip code. First, such a zip code-based incentive would be politically unpalatable. But more importantly, our research shows that it will not work. The example I like to give is this: both me and my next-door neighbor are engineers working for car companies, and we have similar ages, incomes, etc. From a demographic standpoint, we are indistinguishable. Yet my commute is mostly urban and his is mostly highway; we work for different car companies. We are alike in many ways, but not in our driving patterns.

So, knowing that, how do we devise something better?

My job description does not include proposing corporate pricing strategies or government policies, so this example is just hypothetical. But the fact that we now have tools like connectivity and telematics, we no longer need to think of a car model having the same fuel economy for all drivers.

Toyota Prius

We could potentially use pricing or other incentives to nudge a driver to the vehicle best matched for her needs. You could tell her, “We want to provide you with the vehicle that meets your needs, would have the greatest societal impact, and keep the most money in your pocket.” So if she will do mostly urban driving, we may offer tax credits to nudge her to prefer a hybrid. But if, like my neighbor, she drives mostly on highways, we might recommend her to get a less expensive, fuel-efficient gas vehicle that suits her highway driving patterns.

Since the pool of tax credits is limited, we can save that credit for the next urban driver shopping for a car, where it could be up to two times more beneficial. But that’s just one hypothetical example by looking at peoples’ driving patterns either in aggregate or actual, car-by-car information. Access to that massive, potential data stream allows us to optimize the match of technology to the customers’ needs in a way that probably wasn’t possible in the past.”

I’ve read your interview with Pervasive Computing about privacy and security. What you're your present research suggest about this and how it could affect accessing that data stream, automated driving, and associated future experiences?

Privacy versus security is not part of my current research, but has and will be part of any connected-services implementation. For the most part, technologies already exist to provide necessary levels of privacy and security, but finding the right balance between those and customer convenience will be the ongoing challenge as use cases arise.

For example, people already share with non-governmental private corporations sensitive information in exchange for a convenience or a service. They make that tradeoff since they see the value. Anyone who carries a cellphone shares a lot of information about his location, with whom he interacts, what he searches and what he’s buying. An illustrative example from that previous interview was credit cards. Users provide huge amounts of personal information to the credit card companies, but found credit cards were very convenient. To keep this going, the credit card industry had to create and implement security and privacy policies as well as cybersecurity technologies and expertise. Yes, requiring the consumer to enter a 20-digit pin-code at each transaction would improve security, but would drastically degrade the user experience. Over time, the right balance was struck.

An automotive example might be if the driver would divulge her intended route, the car manufacturer theoretically could, in real time, optimize powertrain or chassis performance resulting in improved fuel economy and a more comfortable ride given traffic or road conditions or suggest a different route to gain optimization on prioritized parameters. If you are currently driving up a hill but will soon be going downhill, the car might go deeper into its battery on the climb thereby saving gas and knowing that it can soon recharge the battery on the way down. Will a future driver see sharing that data with her car manufacturer as a good tradeoff? No one knows for certain. But if drivers do, the manufacturers will need to devise designs and procedures for secure data communication and appropriate handling as well as cybersecurity detection and protection flexibility.

You have been, in my opinion, inappropriately criticized by Jalopnik regarding statements you made about autonomous driving. Would you care to comment on that?

I believe that automated driving will bring huge societal benefits, but if we do not think carefully about how it might be used, potentially unforeseen and less-attractive side effects could occur. When you step forward as an employee of a car company and say, “This new technology we are exploring will greatly help society, but it could also bring some unintended outcomes,” people might accidentally think you are indifferent to those issues. I think that’s what you see in the article you mentioned. But I was not then, nor now, indifferent. And I hope that most of the audience there saw that. Basically, I was trying to point out that partial automation — which still requires the driver, but reduces the current tediousness of highway driving by enabling more comfortable, productive, semi-autonomous driving — is likely to lead to more long-highway commutes. That could result in more urban sprawl, and more overall vehicle miles driven or VMT, which is not ideal for society.

Toyota Prius inside

User experience is the great battleground right now. With all of this knowledge, Toyota could differentiate its vehicles. Considering this, why share any of your research publicly?

In part, Toyota has a history of sharing much of its research. This information is not just for Toyota’s benefit, but for societal benefit. This goes to Toyota’s goals of creating more sustainable transportation and society.

For example, we’re releasing lots of our patents around fuel cell development. That could benefit our competitors, but hopefully society will benefit the most. Also, our Cooperative Safety Research Center is making much of its research publicly available. So, yes, some of my research could be used to elevate the user experience of Toyota’s competitors, but it is not that remarkable to me that Toyota is making it publicly available since it aligns with its track record.